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History of Plastics

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What Are Plastics and Where Do They Come From?

Plastic is a word that originally meant “pliable and easily shaped.” It only recently became a name for a category of materials called polymers. The word polymer means “of many parts,” and polymers are made of long chains of molecules. Polymers abound in nature. Cellulose, the material that makes up the cell walls of plants, is a very common natural polymer.

Over the last century and a half humans have learned how to make synthetic polymers, sometimes using natural substances like cellulose, but more often using the plentiful carbon atoms provided by petroleum and other fossil fuels. Synthetic polymers are made up of long chains of atoms, arranged in repeating units, often much longer than those found in nature. It is the length of these chains, and the patterns in which they are arrayed, that make polymers strong, lightweight, and flexible. In other words, it’s what makes them so plastic.

These properties make synthetic polymers exceptionally useful, and since we learned how to create and manipulate them, polymers have become an essential part of our lives. Especially over the last 50 years plastics have saturated our world and changed the way that we live.

The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, who was inspired by a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory. The growing popularity of billiards had put a strain on the supply of natural ivory, obtained through the slaughter of wild elephants. By treating cellulose, derived from cotton fiber, with camphor, Hyatt discovered a plastic that could be crafted into a variety of shapes and made to imitate natural substances like tortoiseshell, horn, linen, and ivory.

The Development of New Plastics

In 1907 Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, meaning it contained no molecules found in nature. Baekeland had been searching for a synthetic substitute for shellac, a natural electrical insulator, to meet the needs of the rapidly electrifying United States. Bakelite was not only a good insulator; it was also durable, heat resistant, and, unlike celluloid, ideally suited for mechanical mass production. Marketed as “the material of a thousand uses,” Bakelite could be shaped or molded into almost anything, providing endless possibilities.

Plastics Come of Age

World War II necessitated a great expansion of the plastics industry in the United States, as industrial might proved as important to victory as military success. The need to preserve scarce natural resources made the production of synthetic alternatives a priority. Plastics provided those substitutes. During World War II plastic production in the United States increased by 300%. The possibilities of plastics gave some observers an almost utopian vision of a future with abundant material wealth thanks to an inexpensive, safe, sanitary substance that could be shaped by humans to their every whim.

Growing Concerns about Plastics

The unblemished optimism about plastics didn’t last. In the postwar years there was a shift in American perceptions as plastics were no longer seen as unambiguously positive. Plastic debris in the oceans was first observed in the 1960s, a decade in which Americans became increasingly aware of environmental problems. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, exposed the dangers of chemical pesticides. In 1969 a major oil spill occurred off the California coast and the polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire, raising concerns about pollution. As awareness about environmental issues spread, the persistence of plastic waste began to trouble observers. Plastic also gradually became a word used to describe that which was cheap, flimsy, or fake.

ECO BOOM bamboo diapers’ topsheet and backsheet are made from 100% bamboo fiber. It can reduce about 30% plastic waste compared with common disposable diapers because they usually use spunbond which is plastic on those two layers. They are small actions ECO BOOM takes to reduce plastic waste.

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